In twentieth-century Paris, two very strong women with completely different ideas of style were battling it out for the top spot in fashion. Today one’s name is known worldwide, and the other is nearly forgotten.
Coco and Newfangled Fashion
Today we think of Chanel fashions as classic, but in the beginning, they were revolutionary. When most women were still laced up tight in their corsets – Coco wore trousers and soft knit tops: comfortable styles borrowed from men’s closets.
In the 1920s, artists from all over the world congregated in Paris. The atmosphere was charged with creativity and a synergy that spawned new ways of looking at everything. Right in the middle of this circle of free-thinking, avant-garde artists was Coco Chanel.
Coco reveled in her role as the uncontested queen of modern fashion. She had the full support of all her artist friends, which included Cocteau, Picasso, Dali, and many more.
New Girl Comes to Town
However, toward the end of the 1920s, a new designer rolled into town and gave Coco a run for her money. Her name was Elsa Schiaparelli. She was born in Italy and had lived in England, America, and now here she was in Paris pestering Coco.
Two Peas in a Pod
On a personal level, the two designers had a lot in common. They were both strong, independent women who had built their own careers and succeeded in a man’s world. Although from very different backgrounds, they had both overcome lonely childhoods and abandonment.
Coco Chanel’s classic styles: The boy look; the Chanel suit; and the little black dress.
Chalk and Cheese
But their styles were like chalk and cheese: they couldn’t have been more different. Coco went for simple and elegant, while Elsa preferred outrageous, and eccentric. Coco’s colors were muted, while Elsa’s favorite hue was “shocking pink,” a color Coco described as “a pink that sets the teeth on edge.”
By the 1930s the Parisian art scene had moved into the land of Surrealism where everything was distorted and dreamlike. Dali was painting melting clocks and by comparison Coco’s styles were looking terribly tame. Elsa’s outrageous outfits, on the other hand, fit right in with Surrealism. She teamed up with Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau to create designs for her clothing line.
Coco, who considered both of these artists as her friends and supporters, was crushed to think they would “betray” her by befriending her rival.
In 1931 Coco was thrilled to get a call from Sam Goldwyn, who had decided that Hollywood’s stars were too vulgar. He wanted Coco to give them a bit of class by dressing them in elegant Chanel styles. What a relief to think that at least the Americans still had good taste! She relished the thought of leaving Paris and “that Italian” behind.
As it turned out, though, Coco’s elegance didn’t have enough oomph for the Hollywood stars and they refused to wear her dull dresses. However, the same celebs who had turned up their noses at Coco’s designs loved Elsa’s theatrical styles. Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Mae West became loyal Schiaparelli clients.
Elsa’s designs: Lobster dress designed with Salvador Dali; Cocteau-designed suit with arm across the waist and golden hair flowing down one sleeve; Coat with signature Jean Cocteau faces and a vase of roses.
Adding Insult to Injury
To make matters worse for Coco, on August 13, 1934, Time Magazine featured Elsa Schiaparelli on their cover. It was the first time a designer had been given that honor.
In 1936, another blow: Wallis Simpson, one of Coco’s faithful customers, appeared in a major photo shoot to announce her marriage to the newly-abdicated King of England – and, horror of horrors, she wore a Schiaparelli/Dali creation! The “Lobster Dress!”
Elsa even followed Coco into the perfume business. Coco had put her name on a fragrance which she had simply called, “Chanel No. 5.” And she had designed the equally simple, rectangular bottle it came in. When Elsa announced her perfume about fourteen years later, it was called “shocking” and it came in a bottle modeled after Mae West’s bust.
Coco accessorized her simple designs with classic pearls, but Elsa liked a bit more pizzazz. Clockwise from left: Shoe hat – designed like an upside down high heeled shoe; Insect necklace – metal insects set in an acrylic band; Large fly pin; Manicured gloves.
Best of Enemies
It’s easy to see why the two designing women didn’t get on. Coco called Elsa “that Italian” and Elsa called her “the hat maker.” (Coco started her career making hats.)
One evening when they found themselves at the same costume ball. They pretended to be friends, and Coco asked Elsa to dance – then she “accidentally” backed Elsa into a candle which set her costume alight.
Both ladies closed down their businesses during World War II. After the war, everything had changed, and Elsa wasn’t able to make a comeback. She faded out of the spotlight. The House of Schiaparelli closed in 1954 but has been recently revived in 2013.
After settling back in after the war, Coco released a new collection in conservative black and white. Europe took no notice – but the Americans did. When France saw that the Americans loved it, they took a second look and decided they loved it too.
And Coco was back in business…
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*More about France – You can read more stories like this in my book Berets, Baguettes, and Beyond.
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